2015 Vanier Scholars

The Vanier scholars exemplify academic excellence across the full range of disciplines. Meet some of the 2015 recipients of Canada’s most prestigious graduate awards.

Brittany Blouin, Epidemiology and Biostatistics

My thesis research focuses on investigating the effect of intestinal parasites on cognitive development in preschool-age children living in the Peruvian Amazon. In the rural and peri-urban communities surrounding Iquitos, Peru (the setting for my research) previous studies have found that approximately 80% of this population is infected with intestinal worms and that infection begins during the first year of life. Although treatment is easily accessible, re-infection following treatment is almost inevitable without changes in hygiene and sanitation practices. These infections can have devastating effects on growth and development and my research is aimed at quantifying the effect of cumulative infections during the preschool ages, a critical time for brain development, on cognitive development.

Learn more about Brittany's research

What are your research plans for the next three years?
I am currently based in Iquitos, Peru supervising the data collection for my thesis research. This includes field supervision, daily review of questionnaire and study data and ongoing training of research assistants and laboratory technologists. Data collection is scheduled to be completed in July 2016 at which point I will perform the data analysis for my research and summarize my results in at least three manuscripts that I will submit for publication. I would like to return to Peru to present the results of my research to local and national decision makers so that my research may be used to plan and implement appropriate health intervention strategies. I plan to finish and submit my PhD thesis by May, 2018.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community?
Winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship has given me the freedom and flexibility to focus entirely on my thesis research for three years. It has allowed me to be present, in Peru, during the data collection for my thesis which is an incredible experience in which I am continuously expanding my skillset in primary data collection in an international setting. Furthermore, this experience has given me greater appreciation and understanding of my data and has allowed me to build global linkages with Peruvian colleagues and investigators. The Vanier scholarship will undoubtedly have a very significant impact on my training as a PhD candidate, for which I am very grateful.

Leanne de Kock, Human Genetics

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small molecules that are involved in various aspects of regulating normal cellular function throughout the human body. A protein known as DICER1 is responsible for ‘dicing’ up miRNA precursors to produce miRNAs of the correct size, variety and quantity which populate each cell. It has been determined that inherited mutations in the DICER1 gene cause cancer in children and young adults. My research initially focused on identifying and cataloguing the DICER1 mutations in tumours that we collected from around the world, and expanded the spectrum of tumours known to be associated with the syndrome. I am now investigating how the identified DICER1 mutations lead to the development of the tumours on a molecular level. Particular attention will be paid to two DICER1-related tumours that occur in the brain region: pituitary blastoma (PitB), a very rare, potentially lethal early childhood tumour of the pituitary gland, and pineoblastoma (PinB), a tumour of the pineal gland.

Learn more about Leanne's research

What are your research plans for the next three years?
The remainder of my research will focus on elucidating how the DICER1 mutations change the pattern of miRNAs within the cells, and how the altered patterns contribute to the development of the tumours. The desired long-term outcome of this research is to gather sufficient knowledge, which may then be used to discover new therapies to target the specific changes that occur in tumours where DICER1 function is compromised.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community?
I feel very honoured and humbled to be among the recipients of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. I must convey my sincere thanks to my supervisor, mentors and McGill’s Dept. of Human Genetics who encouraged and supported my application from the start. Winning the Vanier CGS has afforded me financial security for the remainder of my PhD and in so doing, has allowed me to focus more fully on my research. The prestige of the award has also motivated me to persevere and work towards achieving my research goals. Ultimately, I hope that my research will contribute to the fundamental knowledge on the molecular cause of DICER1-related tumours and will aid in identifying potential therapies for these paediatric and adolescent-onset tumours.

Hélène Dutrisac, Civil Engineering

Recent major earthquakes in Chile and New Zealand have revealed the potential social and economical impacts these natural disasters can have on society. An important aspect that should be considered in the earthquake analysis and design of buildings is the effects of soil-structure interaction. Currently these effects are typically neglected as they are not widely understood or addressed in design codes and standards. My research aims to understand how soil-structure interaction effects impact the response of buildings to earthquake ground motions and to develop models to consider these effects in the earthquake analysis and design of buildings.

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What are your research plans for the next three years?
After completing my comprehensive examination and defending my thesis proposal, I plan on developing, modeling and analyzing various prototypes of reinforced concrete buildings representative of current Canadian building practices. The prototype models will be analyzed utilizing state-of-the-art structural analysis software with and without consideration of soil-structure interaction effects to assess the differences. The parametric study will consider buildings with different number of stories above and below grade and in various cities to capture the effects of different zones of seismicity in Canada. In addition to writing my dissertation, I also plan on disseminating my research findings by publishing in peer-reviewed journals and presenting at conferences. Last but not least, it is my intent to collaborate and work with the National Building Code of Canada (NBCC) Standing Committee on Earthquake Design (SCED) and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Technical Committee on Design of Concrete Structures to translate my research findings into design provisions that realistically capture the effects of soil-structure interaction for the seismic design of buildings.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community?
I feel truly honoured, privileged and proud to receive this prestigious award. The Vanier Graduate Scholarship provides me with the opportunity to pursue and focus on my research goals without the burden of financial pressures. I am profoundly hopeful that the results of my research will yield refinements in seismic design and permit Canadian engineers in the future to more efficiently design earthquake-resistant buildings across our country.

Yasser Gidi, Chemistry

I use single-molecule fluorescence techniques that make it possible to observe and study proteins involved in the replication of life-threatening viruses such as hepatitis C to reproduce, often mutating into forms that are resistant to known drug therapies. I am creating real-time "movies" of individual biological machines in action, with the goal of understanding how viruses reproduce and how they respond to drugs.



Learn more about Yasser's research

What are your research plans for the next three years?
My research plan for the next three years will focus on conducting studies to address questions related to the working mechanism of NS5B polymerase of the Hepatitis C virus. I hope to provide a better understanding of the molecular underpinning of this virus which may enable the design of better treatments for hepatitis C.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community?
It is a great honor to be a Vanier holder. As a Vanier recipient, I will be able to focus fully on my research without having to worry about securing other sources of funding. I feel that it will allow me to go further with my project than I could have originally hoped when I started my PhD.

Philip Kesner, Integrated Program Neuroscience

​My research is focused on identifying and characterizing basic mechanisms in brain circuit development, the work is of direct relevance to understanding and ultimately to the development of treatments for neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and schizophrenia.




Learn more about Philip's research

What are your research plans for the next three years?
Over the next three years I plan to further my research into the cellular mechanisms of circuit development. This will eventually lead to the completion of my dissertation and ultimately the continuation into future research in understanding the observations of neural function and processes.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community?
Receiving the Vanier Graduate Scholarship is a high honour and will definitely aid me in my goals of scientific research that can potentially lead to new therapeutic approaches to developmental disorders.

Julien Malard, Bioresource Engineering

My research deals with assessing the sustainability of agricultural systems in a participatory manner, with two case studies (one from a self sufficiency-oriented community and one from a market-oriented community) in Guatemala. From the social and economic side, I work with stakeholders in agricultural development and food security (including government and NGOs) to develop easy-to-understand (graphical) computer models ("system dynamics models") in group model-building workshops that will represent the socioeconomic processes affecting, for better or worse, agricultural sustainability and food security in communities. The models can then be used in future project planning by the same stakeholders. On the environmental side, I am working with farmers to develop computer models of integrated pest management processes and natural pest control by predator populations already in the field. With this research, we hope to bring some rigorous modelling to the rather anecdotal and qualitative field of agroecology and draw insights into the causes behind successes and failures in integrated pest management and biocontrol. While the socioeconomic part of my research is more useful for longer-term planning and projects, the pest modelling branch could be used as a more day-to-day decision-making tool. This research may also shed more light on organic-conventional agriculture "debate" by providing a more quantitative method of assessing agricultural system sustainability.

Learn more about Julien's research

What are your research plans for the next three years?
Having completed my first round of field work, I now hope to expand use of the integrated pest management models within farming communities. While nearly all farmers that I have seen are quite eager to use less pesticides, oftentimes the only "extension agent" in the field is an agricultural input company salesperson, which means that farmers often don't have access to information on integrated pest management or biocontrol. I hope to orient my future research towards assessing the potential for the use of such integrated pest management models as rapid tools to spread and gather knowledge on what works and doesn't in biological control. I also plan on researching how these models can be used to also gather field information from farmers themselves in order to improve the model, allowing for implicit information transfer and communication between users. On the socioeconomics side, I hope to expand the scope of the models we have built to more communities and develop frameworks to allow for the collaboration of different communities and different levels of government in developing socioeconomic system dynamics models for the same problem in different regions.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community?
The Vanier Graduate Scholarship has had a profound impact on my research and future plans. Firstly, it removed all concerns regarding funding in the short term, allowing me to worry exclusively about my research (which is often more than enough)! The fieldwork component of the research has also been very intensive, with two branches (socioeconomics and environmental) occurring simultaneously in two different case study villages. The funding has allowed me to grow our research team, hiring two Guatemalan field research assistants as well as providing support for McGill undergraduate students to complete internships while working on the project. Over the summer of 2015, we had a team of six undergraduate students working in Guatemala, and several of these (and some new faces) will be returning in 2016. This guaranteed support has also allowed me to be more flexible in my research schedule, including spending three months in India over the summer of 2015 to develop contacts there and compare the rather advanced biocontrol industry there with the Guatemalan context.

Ina Mexhitaj, Integrated Program Neuroscience

​During my fellowship at the NIH’s neuroimmunology branch, I became immersed in the study of multiple sclerosis (MS), an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system (CNS). I was investigating the antigenic targets that could contribute to the development of MS. Working on that study eventually led me to my current project, which is focused on the pediatric-onset of MS. I was attracted to this project because it offers an opportunity to look into the earliest biological events of the disease. Thus far adult MS patients have been the focus of research and clinical trials but these patients likely had developed MS many years prior. This poses a challenge in distinguishing between immune abnormalities that actually contribute to the CNS injury, from those that may develop as a consequence of the disease. Although available therapies overall treat the symptoms and may even decrease new injury, these treatments are not very specific and can result in adverse effects. It is of utmost importance to investigate the specific targets of MS attack on the CNS. Identifying these targets will be instrumental in the development of more selective and safer therapeutics. We believe studying MS in a younger population could help us answer some of those questions.

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What are your research plans for the next three years?
For the next three years I will be investigating pediatric-onset MS, which could provide clues of early disease targets and the specific immune cells that cause the damage. A pediatric cohort allows us to examine a unique patient population because they present with the earliest episodes of MS. My project’s aim is to characterize the disease targets and injury mechanisms in this young population. We hope to provide insights into the immunological abnormalities responsible for MS development. The ultimate goal of my proposed studies is to help with early detection of the disease and the development of more selective treatments. The results would be beneficial not only to the young population, which presents with the first attack but through detection of early pathogenic events, we could potentially target and prevent disease progression in adults.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community?
I am humbled to be a recipient of the prestigious Vanier Graduate Scholarship. Receiving this award motivates and challenges me to push even further in my future endeavors. I believe the Vanier will allow me to bridge my professional and personal passions as it is of utmost importance to me to go beyond my personal development and give back to others. Aside from helping me complete my degree and thus my growth as a scientist, this esteemed award opens doors to countless professional development and community involvement opportunities. Having the chance to invest my time in more pursuits, will further develop my leadership skills and allow me to become a contributing citizen of the global community. Moreover, this award allows me to attend more conferences and training opportunities that will help me foster more collaborations and expand my networking circle, leading to more interdisciplinary projects. I feel extremely privileged that Vanier will be part of my story and help me write the next chapter of my career.

Lou Pingeot, Political Science

A few years ago, I was carrying out interviews around the United Nations about the organization’s safety and security policies. I discovered that a significant proportion of UN employees and officials feel that the UN flag, which used to be a symbol of legitimacy, no longer protects them but has instead become a target. In recent years, the organization has adopted increasingly stringent security measures that isolate UN employees in “bunkerized” compounds, away from local populations. What does this mean about the role of the UN in the world today? My research posits that, by standing back from the concerns of organizational headquarters and state capitals and studying the everyday lives and practices of UN missions, we can uncover new perspectives on patterns of global order and governance. I am particularly interested in how the ambiguities and contradictions of liberal governance are lived and resolved (or not) by UN staff in the field. Against some who see problematic practices (such as “bunkerization”) as pathological, I argue that they allow a certain type of governance to function.

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What are your research plans for the next three years?
My research project in the next three years involves interviewing UN employees at the New York and Geneva headquarters and beyond, as well as fieldwork in Haiti in the winter/spring of 2017 to conduct participant observation of the UN peacekeeping mission there, MINUSTAH. The UN has a long story of engagement in Haiti and it provides an ideal case for studying the interaction and relations between UN interveners and local people.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community?
Receiving the Vanier CGS gives me confidence that my research is relevant to a broad audience and can have significant policy implications. With the support from the Vanier CGS, I will be able to conduct fieldwork and to travel to carry out interviews with the people who are on the frontline of today’s global governance but whose voices are rarely heard in either policy or academic debates.

Kiev Renaud, Département de langue et littérature françaises

I’m studying the portrait, the physical description of literary characters, in contemporary French literature. The portrait is traditionally associated to visual arts: it is easier to make human portraits with the mediums of painting, photography or sculptures because it “shows” instantly, while written language is necessarily linear, all the parts of description are given successively. Nowadays, images are everywhere in society; I want to see how authors portray their characters in these conditions.

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What are your research plans for the next three years?
My next years will be years of reading, and I’m really excited about it: philosophy and literature theory, but also a lot of contemporary literature is on my menu. I chose three authors (Marguerite Duras, Violette Leduc and Richard Millet), but I have to see more largely what it is done in contemporary literature. I can’t believe that this is my job – I love my studies very much. I am also writing fiction, which is another way to understand my research questions, to experiment language and his boundaries: I just published a novel, Je n’ai jamais embrassé Laure (Leméac), and I have another project for the next years.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community?
To win a Vanier Scholarship is an incredible recognition of my work, and a big cheer up for the years to come. It gives me time, which is very precious: time to think, to write, to create and invest in other projects – the perfect conditions to think and to have a fulfilling experience.

Molly Sauter, Art History and Communication Studies

​My research project looks at disruptive political activism on the internet and other networked communication technology (NCT) spaces. I'm interested in how disruptive activism is deployed beyond an additive speech model, and what the utility and political role is of the disruption itself. You can read more about my research at oddletters.com




Learn more about Molly's research

What are your research plans for the next three years?
After finishing my comprehensive exams and defending my proposal, I will dive into the theoretical and archival research that make up the core of my project. I plan to spend a year to 18 months collecting and analyzing my research materials, and 18 months to two years drafting my dissertation. As I complete my research, I plan on writing a number of public-facing articles to share my research with communities outside the academy.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community?
I'm honored, grateful, and proud to be named a Vanier Scholar. The scholarship allows me to focus on research and writing full time, and to share my research with a broad audience outside the academy. Working in public and ensuring that my work is accessible has always been important to me. This scholarship gives me the means to travel, and speak to and work with populations that might otherwise be difficult to reach.

Paul Savage, Experimental Medicine

My research explores the heterogeneity of breast tumors, which are made up of complex mixtures of cancerous and non-cancerous cells. This cellular diversity is believed to be responsible for clinically important properties, such as the ability to resist therapy or spread throughout the body. The overall goal of my studies is to functionally interrogate tumor heterogeneity to identify new therapeutic approaches. By developing patient-derived mouse models of breast cancer, we can identify subpopulations within individual tumors using cutting-edge genomic technologies and then investigate functional differences between these subpopulations in the laboratory.

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What are your research plans for the next three years?
I aim to complete my PhD under the supervision of Dr. Morag Park within the next three years. In addition to completing my projects, I plan on disseminating our findings at national and international conferences. During this time, I would also like to expand on a biobanking effort we have set up in developing patient-derived mouse models of breast tumors which have been an invaluable research tool to my research and others. After completing my PhD, I will be returning to medical school as part of McGill’s MD/PhD program, with the long-term goal of becoming a physician-scientist.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community?
I am sincerely honored to have been awarded the Vanier Graduate Scholarship. This undoubtedly reflects a culmination of strong mentorship throughout my training, for which I am thankful. The weight of this scholarship will be an asset as I embark in the next steps of my training and hopefully open some doors.


Other 2015 Vanier Recipients

  • Vanessa Babineau, Educational and Counselling Psychology
  • Shoronia Cross, Chemistry
  • Dalal Hanna, Natural Resource Sciences
  • Francois Hogan, Mechanical Engineering
  • Mehri Ghazanjani, Sociology
  • Suna Jung, Integrated Program in Neuroscience
  • Shawn McGuirk, Biochemistry
  • Reesha Raja, Integrated Program in Neuroscience
  • Pauley Tedoff, Epidemiology and Biostatistics
  • Esther (Esphire) Yakobov, Psychology
  • Yvonne Yau, Integrated Program in Neuroscience

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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